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H O R I Z O N 2 0 2 0 P R O J E C T S : P O R TA L


S P E C I A L F E AT U R E : A N I M A L E T H I C S


hen researchers get furious with their colleagues

about unnecessary neglect or blunt ignorance about

the side effects of anaesthesia, the plea for stronger

regulations is heard. However, from the perspective of applied

ethics, one can observe an interesting divide between Anglo-

Saxon and Latin Europe, demanding ethical education above the

River Rhine/Danube and demanding more regulation in the

southern part. The worries and solutions of Brigitte von

Rechenberg (see page 166) are illustrative, e.g. emphasising the

role of legislation and the professional codes by professional

organisations. I am from the Anglo-Saxon part, however, and I

believe it is more important to understand the background to the

differences between, and related consequences of, how the EU

countries implement the European guidelines. Those engaged in

EU-based research consortia (e.g. H2020) might recognise the

misunderstandings discussed below.

Although ethical and legal rules are both behavioural rules, ethical

rules are argumentations (called justifications) based on a

handful of premises called ethical principles (equality principle,

no harm principle, principle of respect etc.). On the other hand,

legal rules are mostly prohibitive rules in combination with a

penance when trespassed. Illustrative is the French word

‘déontologie’ (‘knowledge about rules’) for a course on ethics

education.Whilst in Anglo-Saxon countries ethics refers to a

rational argument of justification; these justifications come in two

forms: an action/decision is good or bad when the consequences

are good or bad for most of the relevant parties (usually society),

so-called ‘consequentialism’. The other justification was coined by

the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who emphasised the

evidence-based unbiased underpinning arguments to justify

action/decision. Halfway through the last century, philosophers of

the Frankfurt School added to this that bias could be best tackled

by critical stakeholder dialogue. The animal ethics review boards,

which were set up in the beginning of the 1980s in the

Netherlands, were moulded after this model, having an

interdisciplinary composition and eliminating private and

institutional interests as much as possible.

Most confusingly, the English terminology for Kant’s active rational

in-depth approach is ‘deontology’, now referring to the idea that

one automatically internalises a well-reflected decision, thus only

taking seriously those rules formulated by themselves, and at the

same time will receive support from society at large. They are not

external rules anymore and are sometimes in conflict with one’s

own inclinations (e.g. administrative rules, tax rules), but they are

your rules and therefore your own formulated and wholeheartedly

subscribed obligations. In theory, this difference implies that once

one has a strong rational argument to use chimpanzees in a

laboratory experiment when it is forbidden by EU guidelines and

national legislation, you will be granted exception.

Another difference also impacts on the type of arguments that are

regarded as ‘good’. For instance, several Anglo-Saxon countries

acknowledged in their legislation that a lab animal is more than a

commodity. In the Netherlands, the life of the animal is

acknowledged to have an intrinsic value, regardless of any high or

low benefits for society. Certainly, the researcher is going to abuse

this intrinsic value (e.g. by caging, termination after data

collection, experiment or isolation). Thus they must come up with

a justification. Similar positions have been formulated in

Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, where

violating the dignity of animals is considered a reason to reject

granting permissions.

From the 1980s, the ethics of laboratory animal experiments

developed as a subclass of animal welfare rules which were

mainly the domain of the veterinarians and deal mainly with

questions about welfare issues, i.e. pain and illness and how to

prevent and alleviate this. Von Rechenberg’s message is again

illustrative for this veterinarian line or argumentation: reduce all

unprofessional handling of animals to prevent unnecessary

suffering and loss of high quality animals. Of course, such animal

house management is accountable, but good animal husbandry

and proper professional licences don’t necessarily provide an

argument to execute a chosen research goal. For this we need a

balanced argument on the necessity to use animals for that goal

at all. This refers to the acknowledgement of the value of the

animal, next to the obvious instrumental use. This claim on a

future benefit is a challenge as future societal benefits tend to be

speculative instead of evidence based. The well-documented,

extremely low percentage of animal research for medical drugs

that ends in market approval shows the opposite.

Different to von Rechenberg, I, as an ethicist, would plea in the

first instance for more education on ethical justifications amongst

biomedical researchers and medical students doing their science

internship or PhD – not only learning protocols by heart.

Professor Tjard de Cock Buning

Project Leader

Athena Institute for Research on Communication and

Innovation in Life and Health Sciences

Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences

VU University

te l :

+31 205987031

Professor Tjard de Cock Buning offers his views on why we need greater

education on ethical justification

Ethical education